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G’day Wallnuts

Ron Bidwell and mates spruce up an Australian town with retro wall murals.

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Letterheads from down under” congregated in the historic town of Portland, New South Wales, Australia, on October 19-21 for “Wallnuts Weekend,” during which approximately 50 signmakers converged to reproduce vintage advertisements.

Ron Bidwell, the former owner of Portland’s Bidwell Ads, hosted the meet because of his love of his craft and the desire to get together with his fellow “Heads.” He coined the event “Wallnuts” because walldogs from days of yore had to be a little crazy to paint while hanging off a swinging stage.

“If you’re in this business, and you aren’t interested in attending Letterhead meets, you don’t have enough turpentine in the blood,” Bidwell says. “We had signmakers attending from as far away as 1,400 miles, just for a weekend of wallpainting.”

The Wallnuts painted 10 murals, ranging in size from 6 x 10 ft. to 15 x 18 ft., that depict common Australian products from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Solvol Soap, Arnott’s Biscuits and Bushell’s Tea. Bidwell said that he selected the theme because of the products’ evocative associations.

“These are old, traditional brands, many of which are still around,” he says. “When people look at them, they think of their mothers and grandmothers using these products, and they tend to evoke certain memories. I’ve even seen some people get a bit emotional looking at the murals.”

Bidwell prepared for the event by painting the blank buildings that would bear the murals with a coat of primer, then two finishing coats: “I needed the Wallnuts to be productive as soon as they arrived, so I couldn’t have them milling about and fooling around with backgrounds.”

Mark Tailby, CEO for Graphic Art Mart (Sydney), donated materials, including gallons of Solver acrylic, water-based paints, which Bidwell said are the most suitable type of paint for exterior walls, as well signcutting brushes.

Bidwell admitted his personal favorite was the 15 x 18-ft. mural depicting an ad for Arnott’s biscuits.

“The predominant colors are white, gold, blue and red, and I think it’s very striking,” he says. “It’s an excellent contrast, and really captivates the eye.”

The Wallnuts also gave the town’s aging movie theatre a makeover, airbrushing its archways with panels advertising movies from the “Golden Age of Cinema.”

The Wallnuts sought to recreate authentic murals in the style of ads from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While notices from yesteryear lacked the sophistication of today’s, they more than atone for that shortcoming with charm.

Tailby, who has worked at Graphic Art Mart for 23 years, said he enjoys Letterheads because of the importance of preserving traditional signmaking skills.

“In 50 years, there is still going to be a demand for signs to be painted the traditional way, by hand, with paint,” Tailby says. “There’s a common misconception that all one needs is a computer to design a sign, and an inkjet printer to print one out. However, if you don’t have the traditional design skills learned and practiced at Letterhead meets like these, not even the best equipment will make you a good sign designer.”

With a population of approximately 2,000, Portland loomed as an ideal place for the meet and murals because of its unique atmosphere and culture.

“There are lots of musicians and songwriters here, as well as numerous other artists, writers and poets,” Bidwell explains. “There’s a creative spirit here, and I think that most people will appreciate these murals.”

Bidwell also expresses optimism that the murals would assist in promoting tourism in Portland, and ultimately the local economy, noting that tourism had already increased slightly in the first month since the murals’ completion.

“Wallnuts Weekend received a great deal of coverage, including segments in the local newspapers and TV stations,” he said. “Graphic Art Mart and Dennis Rutzou Public Relations did a great job in assisting and promoting the event.”

Bidwell adhered strictly to the style and content of the original ads, even if it meant sacrificing aesthetics for authenticity.

“Advertisements from that era simply weren’t as sophisticated as those of today,” he notes. “The spacing wasn’t always very good, and the script isn’t very pretty in certain spots. But we wanted to recapture the ads of the old days, and I think we met our goal.”

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